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Is It a Cold or Flu?


How Do I Know if I Have the Flu?

The CDC defines flu symptoms to include fever (temperature of 100.3 degrees F [38 degrees C] or greater, or signs of fever such as chills, sweats, flushing, skin feeling hot) with cough and/or sore throat. In addition, you may experience headache, body aches, fatigue, nasal congestion, vomiting and diarrhea. 

Cold or Flu? What To Do?

In general, unless you are experiencing difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent vomiting, severe diarrhea or instability related to dehydration, persistent fever more than 3-4 days, or have a high-risk condition, you should stay home and use self-care measures.

High Risk Conditions Include:

  • lung diseases like asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic bronchitis or emphysema

  • heart disease

  • chronic kidney disease

  • metabolic diseases like diabetes

  • blood disorders like sickle cell or other severe anemia

  • a weakened immune system caused, for example, by cancer or cancer treatment, HIV/AIDS, organ transplant, or corticosteroid therapy

  • certain conditions such as nervous system or muscular disorders or seizure disorders that can cause breathing problems or increase the risk of inhaling oral secretions.

  • pregnancy

How to Care for Yourself

Medications used to treat the flu or a cold control symptoms. Antibiotics won’t work – they combat bacterial, not viral, infections. Viruses actually hide inside your own cells where antibiotics cannot affect them. Flu and cold care is aimed at symptom relief and immune system support. These include the following:

  • Get plenty of rest.​

  • Do not smoke.

  • Drink plenty of fluids—up to 3-4 liters per day (to prevent dehydration from fever and to help loosen mucous or phlegm).

  • For fever, headache, body aches, or sore throat pain, take Tylenol (acetaminophen) Advil (ibuprofen), or Aleve (naproxen) every 4-6 hours.

  • For sore throat, gargle every 4 hours with warm, salty water (mix 1/2 teaspoon salt or baking soda in 8 oz. of warm water). Also, try using throat lozenges containing a numbing medication.

  • For hoarseness or laryngitis, talk as little as possible. Straining the voice can prolong or worsen laryngitis.

  • For heavy amounts of nasal discharge or a large amount of phlegm associated with cough, consider using a mucolytic, such as Mucinex (available over-the-counter).

  • For persistent runny nose or nasal congestion, antihistamines and decongestants may be used. Mild antihistamines such as Chlor-Trimeton are useful for runny nose, sneezing and watery eyes. Use a decongestant such as Sudafed (pseudophedrine) for nasal/sinus congestion or ear fullness. A combination antihistamine/decongestant such as Actifed or Dimetapp may be taken for multiple symptoms. But remember, antihistamines may make you drowsy (decongestants usually will not)!

When to Seek Medical Care

Flu and colds may lead to secondary bacterial infections or worsening of chronic conditions such as asthma for which prescription medication would be necessary. You should seek medical attention if you are not improving after 7-10 days or for any of the following symptoms:

  • Very sore throat that shows no signs of improving after 3 days, or that is accompanied by fever and without any other usual cold symptoms

  • Painful swelling of the lymph nodes or glands in the neck

  • Discolored mucus from nasal passages for more than 7-10 days

  • Pain or tenderness around the eyes

  • Ear pain (as opposed to a “full” feeling)

  • Cough with production of a large amount of discolored mucus

  • Painful breathing, wheezing or shortness of breath

  • Cough that persists more than 2-3 weeks

  • Severe headaches or facial pain not relieved with over-the-counter medication

  • Fever higher than 100.4 degrees for more than 3-4 days

    *This website does not provide medical advice.

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